The Gospel According to Disney

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Mickey Mouse and faith?

The world's most famous rodent and his animated friends say more about faith and values than you might think -- they're not just postage stamps. There are life lessons in the full-length animated features that have been the signature of the Walt Disney Co. for nearly seven decades.

Peter Pan taught us that "faith, trust and pixie dust" can help you leave your cares behind. Jiminy Cricket showed Pinocchio -- and millions of moviegoers -- that "when you wish upon a star," dreams come true.

Bambi stimulated baby-boomer support for gun control and environmentalism.

Cinderella became a syndrome. The Little Mermaid illustrated the challenges of intermarriage. The Lion King hinted at Hindu tradition in the "Circle of Life."

Walt Disney said he wanted his theme parks to be "a source of joy and inspiration to all the world." Some have compared them to shrines to which American families make obligatory pilgrimages, parents reconnecting with their own childhoods while helping their kids experience a cartoon fantasy mecca.

Even Disney's detractors see tremendous symbolic value in his cartoon characters. As a boycott loomed in the mid-1990s, one Southern Baptist leader -- denouncing the Disney corporation's human-resources policies toward same-sex couples -- asked his sympathizers, "Do they expect Mickey to leave Minnie and move in with Donald? That's goofy!"

There is a consistent set of moral and human values in these movies, loosely based on Western, Judeo-Christian faith and principles, which together constitute a "Disney gospel." Ironically, it is at the same time a largely secular scripture that reflects the personal vision of Walt Disney and the company he shaped in his image and, to a lesser degree, the commercial goals of the studio.

So good is always rewarded; evil is always punished. Faith is an essential element -- faith in yourself and, even more, faith in something greater than yourself, even if it is some vague, nonsectarian higher power. Optimism and hard work complete the basic canon.

A wish, not a prayer

The old man needed a miracle, supernatural intervention to give life to his little boy, slumped motionless across the room. So the white-haired woodcarver did what might be expected under the circumstances:

He knelt on his bed, folded his hands on the windowsill and turned his eyes to heaven. Then, in his soft Italian accent, he did not pray. Instead, Geppetto wished upon a star. The transformation from puppet to boy that ensued in Walt Disney's Oscar-winning 1940 animated feature Pinocchio was indeed miraculous but not traditionally divine. As the man slept, a winged, glowing spirit, the Blue Fairy, advised the marionette to "let your conscience be your guide," to "choose right from wrong" so he could earn the "gift of life."

And Pinocchio is not an exception.

Walt Disney, who as an adult avoided church services, did not want religion in his movies.

"He never made a religious film, and churchmen were rarely portrayed in Disney movies," according to Bob Thomas in Walt Disney: An American Original, authorized biographer of the company's founding brothers. In Building a Company: Roy O. Disney and the Creation of an Entertainment Empire, Thomas wrote that, throughout his career, Walt "had eschewed any film material dealing with religion, reasoning that portions of the audience would be displeased by the depiction of a particular sect."

Faith without religion

Thus, there is relatively little explicit Judeo-Christian symbolism or substance in 70 years of Disney's animated features, despite the frequent, almost pervasive use of a theological vocabulary: words such as faith, believe, miracle, blessing, sacrifice and divine. It seems a contradiction, portraying consistent Judeo-Christian values without sectarian, or even a godly, context -- religion's fruits without its roots.

Yet the Disney empire, by its founder's designation, is a kingdom of magic, almost totally without reference to any kingdom of heaven. It advertises Disneyland as the happiest place on earth -- not the holiest. There are no churches on Main Street at Disneyland or Walt Disney World or chapels on Disney cruise ships.

Walt's daughter Diane Disney Miller told one minister that there are no churches on Main Street because her father did not want to favor any particular denomination. It is an explanation repeated today by company officials, as if the company's genius for the generic did not extend to creating a one-size-fits-all church. Walt "didn't want to single out any one religion," according to Disney archivist David Smith.

Not withstanding, few entertainment productions continue to have as profound an impact on young children as these animated features. Together, The Lion King, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid have sold hundreds of millions of videocassettes and DVDs, adding exponentially to viewings at movie theaters and readings of bedtime stories based on the films.

These animated classics -- which are reflected in all of the Disney theme parks -- rely primarily on mythic tales and images, some pre-Christian, that are replete with witches and demons, sorcerers and spells, genies and goblins.

Yet millions of children around the world know from Disney much of what they do about the practical application of right and wrong. In the Western world in particular, the number of hours children spend receiving moral instruction in houses of worship is dwarfed by the amount of time spent sitting in front of screens large and small, learning values from Disney movies and other programming.

Tales offer safe haven

Through its films, toys, books and theme parks, Disney has created a world of fantasy --based on a set of shared American beliefs -- that both entertains and educates children in this country and around the world. What accounts for this enduring impact? For many parents, Disney's entertaining morality tales, from Pinocchio to the company's latest releases, have offered one of the few safe havens for children's viewing in modern, often toxic popular culture.

In the more than 35 animated features Disney has released since Snow White in 1937, there is scarcely a mention of God as conceived in the Christian and Jewish faiths shared by most people in the Western world and many beyond. Disney's decision to exclude or excise traditional religion from animated features was in part personal -- he was raised by a rigidly fundamentalist father -- and in part commercial, designed to keep the product salable in a worldwide market.

In 1935, Walt and Roy were impressed to find that a theater in Paris was showing six Disney cartoons -- and no feature, according to Thomas. Three years later, while visiting Paris without Walt to oversee the opening of Snow White, Roy arranged for the feature's dubbing into Arabic and Hindi, as well as into European languages. When Pinocchio was released in 1940, the studio spent $65,000 to dub it into seven foreign languages.

"Walt wanted to communicate with a global audience," said John Culhane, an animation authority at New York University and author of two books on Fantasia. "He wanted to communicate with a multicultural audience." Thus the choice was made to keep the films accessible and relevant to children inside and outside the Judeo-Christian tradition in order to pass through a minefield of conflicting sensibilities.

Yet since ancient times, dramatists have seen the need for a sometimes unexpected device to intervene and resolve plot conflicts.

The classical Greeks had an actor portraying a deity descend to the stage in a basket to aid in the narrative, which they called deus ex machina, meaning a god from the machine. Magic, Disney apparently decided, would be a far more universal device to do this than any one religion. Clearly, this strategy has worked; Disney characters are arguably far more recognizable around the world than images of Jesus or Buddha.

Disney's 'secular 'toonism'

In recent decades, "culture-war" debates between conservatives and liberals have unfolded in religious circles. One term in particular, "secular humanism," emerged on the right in the 1980s as a pejorative term for the idea that universal values can be defined and communicated without a religious -- usually Judeo-Christian -- context. Disney's gospel is what we might call "secular 'toonism."

Some religious conservatives have complained that the animated features under Michael Eisner's regime represent a betrayal of Walt's "family-values" legacy. But the haze of childhood memories may be distorting. A 1954 Time magazine cover story, coinciding with the opening of Disneyland in Anaheim, noted that Walt Disney had been described as "the poet of the new American humanism" and that Mickey Mouse was "the symbol of common humanity in struggle against the forces of evil."

Some movies controversial

In addition to the founder's humanism, the early films strongly supported environmentalism, the theory of evolution and, arguably, a tolerant, even gay-friendly attitude that would doubtless make today's conservatives uncomfortable, to say the least.

In the 1990s, this controversy about Disney's products and policies erupted into a full-fledged boycott led by the Southern Baptist Convention. There was good reason for this battle about values, especially as it relates to the animated features. There is growing evidence, beyond the speculative and the theoretical, that they can have a real impact on the lives of children.

A recent study conducted by Colorado State University researchers suggests that "everything we need to know about parenting and family relations can be learned from watching Disney movies," according to a March 27 article in the National Post newspaper of Canada.

"These films are likely to play a role in the development of children's culture and may influence children's and adults' information about families," wrote Toni Zimmerman, Shelley Haddock, Mia Adessa Towbin and Lori K. Lund of the university's department of human development and family studies, where the research was done.

'Blended families' benefit

Given the large percentage of movie characters in families without both birth parents in the home, the features may be especially helpful to parents and children in "blended families," the study found.

"Having a variety of families portrayed in the animated films is beneficial for children in two ways," according to the study. "It presents children with images of families other than their own, helping children to realize that there are many family types they can choose from later in life. It also increases the likelihood that children will be able to see a representation of their own kind of family in at least some of the movies."

All of this is not to argue that Disney's animated features are a viable substitute for therapy, education, worship or Sunday school. Rather, they may be useful tools in building a general moral sensibility among children and in reinforcing parental and religious values. In some cases, where individual films parallel the situation in which children may find themselves, the movies may be able to do more.

Mark Pinsky is the Sentinel's religion reporter and author of The Gospel According to Disney, published by Westminster John Knox Press. This article is excerpted from that book.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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